Portland’s food, co-op cultures converge at Food Front

Portland is justly famous for its food culture, particularly its emphasis on local and sustainably produced foods. But Portland is also notable for something fewer residents know about: the number of cooperatively owned businesses that make their home here. According to a directory listing of cooperatives on the People’s Food Co-op website, Portland has more than 50 cooperatively run businesses, including preschools, grocery stores, bike shops, housing co-ops and health care providers.

Food Front Cooperative Grocery combines these two aspects of Portland life under its two roofs. Food Front, which celebrated its 40th anniversary earlier this year, began in 1972 in a modest storefront on Northwest 23rd Avenue in Portland. Today they’re in the process of completing extensive renovations to their current Northwest Portland location at 2375 NW Thurman, and five years ago they opened a second location at 6344 SW Capitol Hwy. in Hillsdale.

Food Front is a member-owned cooperative with more than 8,700 member-owners. You don’t need to be a member to shop in either of its two stores. However, membership offers a number of benefits, including monthly owner specials, patronage dividends, a 5-10% discount during quarterly Owner Appreciation Festivals, and the power to both serve on and elect the co-op board.

Jessica Miller, Food Front’s director of marketing and outreach, describes the various improvements to the Northwest store as “an aesthetic makeover,” but also points out that the updated refrigeration they’re installing will improve energy efficiency. Several departments, including the deli, meat counter, beer, wine, cheese and produce, will be expanded.

“We’ll have a meat department manager on site at the Northwest store who can provide customers with detailed information about the meats we sell, just as we do in Hillsdale,” Miller explains. “We’re really focusing on bringing in as much local meat and sustainable seafood as we can.”

In the beer, wine, cheese and produce sections, customers will find even more local products, including a selection of kosher, biodynamic and organic wines, and a wider variety of items overall. To accommodate these expansions, the packaged grocery section will downsize.

“Fresh is what we do best,” Miller explains. “The way for us to stay competitive is to focus on our strengths.” Packaged groceries will feature more local producers, something Food Front has been championing for years. “We particularly like to help newcomers get their foot in the door,” says Miller. “We were the first store to do demos of Dave’s Killer Bread; today he’s a huge presence in local markets.”

Along with producers of packaged foods, Food Front cultivates relationships with local farmers. Miller says this business approach has multiple advantages. “Supporting the local economy and supporting the community is the main reason why we do what we do,” she explains. “Supporting local farms creates more local jobs. Organic farming is also better for the environment. Our farmers grow multiple crops, which is better for the soil and lowers carbon footprints. Also, when we buy farm-direct, we may pay a little more, but the quality is so much higher that it’s worth it, and produce is of better quality when you buy it from local farmers.” According to the National Cooperative Grocers Association, cooperative markets work with more than twice as many local farmers and food producers than do conventional grocery stores, and organic products account for almost 50% of total co-op sales, compared with only 2% in standard grocery stores. In addition, co-op employees earn an average of $1/hour more in wages, and more than two-thirds of co-op employees receive health benefits, as compared with just over 50% of conventional grocery workers.

To help build relationships between their customers and producers, Food Front organizes an annual farm trip for their members; their most recent trip visited West Union Gardens, Phoenix Egg Farms, Sauvie Island Organics and Food Works. Food Front also supports local farmers’ markets and CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). “We don’t see them as competition,” says Miller. “Farmers’ markets and CSAs promote the ability of people to buy local farm-direct food.”

With Hanukkah beginning Dec. 8, Food Front is also a great place to stock up on latke ingredients, from the traditional onions and potatoes to alternative latke recipes, like carrot-parsnip or sweet potato-ginger. For non-traditional latke recipes, go to blogs.forward.com/the-jew-and-the-carrot/133490/some-not-so-traditional-latkes-ideas/.

Elizabeth Schwartz is a Portland freelance writer and founding member of Portland Tuv Ha’Aretz, Portland’s Jewish connection to sustainable agriculture.

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